If I do anything fun with social media, I have my teenage daughter to thank. She’s the one who put the GIF app on my phone and helped me get an “avatar emoji” known as bitmoji. Without her, I would be helplessly uninformed about these and other features of communicating in the 21st century.
My bitmoji is definitely a little silly (she says “let’s taco about it!” with a taco in her hand) and I tend to be serious. But I have to admit that I like being able to respond to people with a funny cartoon that looks a little like me doing funnier things than I usually do.
A great article in the New York Times magazine this weekend about avatars by Amanda Hess asks a question, one I have been thinking about since getting my bitmoji: “Online, we present ourselves in ever-more-numerous guises across a variety of platforms. What does the ‘avatar’ we choose say about who we really are?”
Hess recounts the history of avatars from Hinduism to today. “In Hindu theology, Vishnu assumes various earthbound avatars — among them a fish; a tortoise; a half-man, half-lion — in an effort to restore order at times when humanity has descended into chaos. Now we’re the gods,” she says, “reinventing ourselves online in the hope of bringing order to a realm we can’t quite keep under our control.” When I paste a bitmoji image of myself into a text message, I don’t consider myself a god, but I see Hess’s point about wanting to participate in, if not reinvent, the world I’m living in.
Hess points out that we represent ourselves differently via different platforms and uses herself as an example: “On Facebook, I’m posed by a professional photographer, waist contorted into a slimmed line, eyes peering up out the window of a skyscraper. On Snapchat, I’m burrowed into my office chair, blankly blinking my eyes open and closed.” She is not alone. Although my bitmoji is my only cartoon avatar, I use different photographs of myself on Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook to communicate different things about myself, as do many others.
But I wonder, haven’t people always acted, and presented themselves, differently in different settings? At least to some degree? And isn’t it arguable that successful people know how to modify their affect or appearance to suit a given context? Don’t we all, for the most part, dress up for the opera, and down for the grocery store?
As I usually do when pondering these kinds of questions, I turn to literature. In response to Hess’s question about what our choice of avatar says about ourselves, I think about Jay Gatsby, a lower-class kid from the mid-west who could have won an Oscar for his performance as a monied New York blueblood. Gatsby’s charade didn’t last forever, and it cost him his life, but in my opinion it wasn’t criminal that he tried to be something that he wasn’t.
I probably owe my attitude toward human chameleons to another literary figure, Oscar Wilde, who was the subject of my undergraduate thesis and with whom I spent a good year of college. It was Wilde more than anyone else who helped me to understand and accept that identity is not a static state of being, but a fluid reality. He understood that better than most, given that it was illegal at the time for him to be who he was.
In our use of digital avatars today, we continue a long legacy of trying on different masks and seeing which ones fit.